Michael Wolff: How Brian Williams Will Save MSNBC

Brian Williams MSNBC - H 2015
Illustration by: John Ueland

Brian Williams MSNBC - H 2015

The anchor’s "demotion" by NBC News execs (who consulted Roger Ailes) is a win-win for the network, as the proven star brings a new audience and a compelling personal narrative to a struggling network known for a "comical march of characters."

This story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Andy Lack, the veteran news producer who returned to run NBC's news division following the Brian Williams calamity, was given three priorities by his boss, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke: deal with the Williams issue, a business as well as PR disaster; repair the Today show, the NBC cash cow that had lost the morning-show ratings title to ABC's Good Morning America; and fix MSNBC, the deeply troubled cable news network. Let's put Today aside for another day and concentrate here on the Williams and MSNBC problems, which were firmly linked by the June 18 decision to send Williams from the network to the cable channel.

Calamity had presented an opportunity — albeit one that demanded many somersaults of intention and meaning: Williams, among the biggest talents in television news — which is ever more a talent game — actually could rescue MSNBC.

Through NBC's eyes, the logic worked as follows:

However ghoulish the press had become, Williams, 56, remained an admired colleague for many at the network (certainly among those who counted most at the company). He also is a valuable talent, and with his big contract — reportedly close to $10 million a year even with a modest salary cut as part of his punishment — it would be a double whammy for NBC to lose a star and to have to pay for it. While Williams had lied about or exaggerated his war-reporting exploits, the network also understood that it had messed up too. After the initial perfect storm of confusion and accusation, there was a classic rush to judgment, then a limbo suspension and endless internal investigation that turned Williams into a hit-him-again pinata — a case study in what not to do in crisis management. Hence the network's sheepish consensus: The fair and reasonable thing, as well as the sensible business move, was to find a way to bring him back, while, of course, limiting the network's own exposure.

As for MSNBC, with its lineup led by Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and other liberal pundits, it had come to the end of its ham-handed (if not ludicrous) role as the left alternative to right-wing Fox. "It had pressed the embarrassment button," according to a senior NBC news executive, and there hardly is a greater corporate sin. And, too, it was, from the television news business point of view, not just a lost opportunity but a profound screw-up in news strategy. Television news is the cable business. MSNBC should have been the engine not the caboose of NBC news programming. The network news, heretofore epitomized by Williams, is, as everyone knows, a declining if not lost business — and cable news, with its dual revenue streams of subscription fees and advertising, a hugely profitable one. In other words, Williams at MSNBC will be vastly more valuable to NBCUniversal than at Nightly News.

But Williams-to-the-rescue could not look like a win-win, it had to look like a punishment. Of course, if it was a punishment, how do you justify acknowledging someone's journalistic malfeasance and stripping him of his post at one network, then giving him a post at another? Did MSNBC viewers, journalism bishops asked in shocked unison, warrant less credibility than NBC news viewers?

On the other hand, given MSNBC's comical march of characters like Ronan Farrow and Al Sharpton, this seemed, at least to NBC executives, something of a confounding question, if not a semiotic riddle.

It was the contradiction at the heart of the controversy: The people driving the story, the "Journalism-with-a-capital-J crowd," in the description of one network executive, were defending a news ideal — a vaunted evening news that Williams had tried to personify and which Journalism-with-a-J believed Williams to have desecrated with his war stories — that was a ghost. The true evening news was a half-hour of reading AP copy that, in its best-case form, didn't give the network a headache.

But the network was loath to stand up to, or lacked the language to rebut, Journalism-with-a-J. Hence, nobody would say that the network news was, practically speaking, over, and that without Williams it would further shrink in stature, meaning, for the network, even fewer headaches; nor that Williams was back and more important than ever to the fortunes of the news division. Instead, they said the integrity of the network news was being upheld, and Williams was being sent to the farm team where he'd have limited responsibility. (Here's something else the network especially couldn't say: Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Journalism-with-a-J's ultimate dark angel as well as the most successful man in television news, had been consulted about Williams-affair strategy.)

Of course, this opaque communication and misdirection of intentions created other problems, most of all getting Williams jazzed about his new role as the rescuer of MSNBC. The rough, scarlet-letter treatment he'd endured, and which the network believed, however regretfully, it had to publicly dole out, made him resistant to getting on board with anything. On the other hand, MSNBC's problems were so vast that only disgrace and banishment could have gotten Williams to go there.

And yet, clear to many, if Williams were persuaded to enthusiastically step up, he could save himself as well as MSNBC. A daily hour in primetime featuring Williams, even conservatively estimating the numbers he could be counted on to bring, would provide, according to one insider, at minimum a 30 percent bump in primetime viewership. And that's without even thinking.

With some thought, what you arguably had in Williams was the perfect cable news personality: a man with a vivid personal story and need for redemption, and, not unhelpfully at all, a tendency toward self-dramatization, together with a quick wit and that all-important cable ability to go on the air for long periods without prep or notes — and who, to boot, was easy on the eyes (rarer and rarer in cable).

Of course, you could not say this to Williams because, for the network's sake, he needed to wear his shame publicly.

And you could not say any of this to the Journalism-with-a-J crowd. Because what you were really saying was that the Williams fracas was a sign of what everyone said it was, television news' ever more certain transformation from what Journalism-with-a-J imagined it should be — a transformation that everybody knew had already, long ago, taken place.

If journalism is about drawing an accurate picture of reality, talking about journalism is often about pretending the world is as you want it to be.

But the world is as it is. And that will be the Brian Williams Show.

Now, on to Today.

Michael Wolff's new book, 'Television Is the New Television,' went on sale June 23.